Foreign Affairs

Just Deserts: Ignoring the Sahel

In mid-April 2018, a desert market is pierced by sudden sirens. Shoppers run for cover, and soldiers at a nearby military base prepare themselves for an attack. Mortars crash. Car bombs explode in the base. Gunfire erupts amidst a flurry of explosions. After three hours of chaos, a camp run by U.N. and French peacekeepers is left crippled.

This scene did not play out in Syria or Iraq. It occurred in Timbuktu, Mali — a major city in the Sahel. Scenes like this, along with a host of other hardships, are becoming more familiar to this area. However, no one seems to care.

The Sahel refers to the zone south of the Sahara stretching from the Atlantic coast in the west to the Red Sea in the east. The main countries in the region include Mauritania, Mali, Chad, Burkina Faso, and Niger, known as the Sahel G-5. The area has a rich history in producing some of the greatest civilizations in Africa; Saharan trade routes fed major urban centers like Timbuktu, Gao, and Djenne, and allowed the powerful kingdoms of Ghana, Mali, and Songhai to rise. But, that’s just the history of a far-off non-consequential place.

Today, Western acknowledgment of the Sahel is limited to some aid groups and a nominal military presence. The region is mostly treated as a political backwater that does not demand much attention. However, the Sahel’s seeming unimportance is a mirage. The U.S., in particular, should rethink its policy in the area, as the region is becoming a new hub for extremism and threatens to become a major humanitarian crisis.

Famine is the most pressing issue facing the region. Low rainfall, which is the norm for the region, limits possible agriculture. Climate change is exasperating this already fragile situation. Warming water temperatures over the Atlantic, namely in the Gulf of Guinea, have shifted precipitation south. Rainfall is now even more erratic as a result.

In addition, the Sahara is advancing. According to a study by University of Maryland scientists, the desert has expanded by 10 percent over the past century. With its growth, water sources are drying up. Lake Chad is a primary example of this, as it has lost 90 percent of its surface area in recent years.

The World Food Programme estimates around six million people across the Sahel are in need of food aid. Clinics providing rehydration and food relief have increased from 1,110 to 8,000 across the region over the past decade, demonstrating the severity of the situation and the dependency countries in the Sahel have on international aid to meet food demands.

Rather ironically, agriculture remains the Sahel’s main industry despite its rampant food insecurity. In Niger alone, around 36 percent of GDP and 75 percent of employment comes from the agricultural sector. Climate change itself endangers the livelihoods of many Sahel citizens, but Sahel governments have additionally been diverting funding away from rural areas for urban development. Again in Niger, despite heavy dependence on agriculture, budget allocation for the sector has dropped from 18 percent to eight percent of the total over the past two decades.

The sector also suffers from lack of irrigation development. The World Bank estimates only around 20 percent of irrigation potential in the Sahel has been exploited. Budgetary mismanagement by Sahel governments exacerbates this issue.

Famine and high unemployment offer a prime opportunity for recruitment by extremist groups. The promise of religious relief is enticing to those suffering. In addition, the weakness of states and difficult geographical features, like deserts and mountains, keep policing low. Heavy resistance along the Mediterranean Coast has pushed such groups down to the vulnerable Sahel. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Boko Haram, and ISIS have all found refuge in the region.

These groups must be taken seriously. The desert environment may seem barren, but its geographical location offers many resources. Many of these groups are supported by the Saharan slave trade, in part fueled by large populations in the Sahel. Destabilized states neighboring the Sahel also supply weaponry. In Mali, Nomadic Tuareg tribesmen who frequently rebelled were given sanctuary in Libya by Gaddafi. After his death and the state’s collapse in 2011, the Tuareg returned to Mali armed with Libyan weaponry. With newfound military power, Tuareg-led rebels and other Islamist fighters who benefited from Libya’s fall subsequently seized northern regions of Mali in 2012.

Recurrent attacks and acts of brutality across the Sahel demonstrate the growing power of such groups. As mentioned before, militants stormed a supercamp in Timbuktu in April 2018. A month prior, attacks in Burkina Faso’s capital targeted the French embassy and national army headquarters. In the same country, Canadian Kirk Woodman was abducted and killed in late January of this year. Two aid workers, Canadian Edith Blais and Italian Luca Tacchetto, have been missing since December 15. If these extremists are not dealt with, they will continue to be emboldened and carry out further heinous deeds.

Many outside powers acknowledge the crisis in the Sahel. Aid groups are active in the region, and many countries contribute to the large U.N. peacekeeping mission there. The largest military powers have made direct security investments, such as with the European Union giving 50 million euros to support a joint Sahelian African military force in 2017, and with U.S. special operations running Flintlock exercises to train local forces.

However, aid groups are limited in their abilities and are dwarfed by the potential of aid from formal states. The U.N. peacekeeping mission sees wide participation, but has has been neglected and is hard to support due to the region’s remoteness. Additionally, isolationist policies being implemented by the U.S. are stripping the already limited security presence in the region.

Violence in the Sahel has actually helped support this outlook. In October 2018, the deaths of four American soldiers in Niger encouraged Trump to take less risk in the region, seen in his order to reduce military forces in the region by about 50 percent. Past administrations have reacted similarly. In 1993, then-President Clinton pulled forces out of Somalia after troop deaths there.

This policy ignores the reality of the Sahel. The region is already unstable as is, so lessening any military investments will be catastrophic. Clinton’s response to Somalia made the same mistake, as the absence of U.S. troops contributed to the state’s collapse and transformation into a sanctuary for pirates and jihadists.

In recent years, African jihadists have become more deadly than their Iraqi counterparts. Many recent terrorist attacks, including the Manchester bombing and Berlin truck attacks, were committed by actors connected to states like Libya. There is a high potential for the Sahel to provide resources, like manpower and territory, to such jihadists and increase their lethality.

Growing extremism in the Sahel also produces a massive amount of refugees. Part of the current European migrant crisis can be attributed to the issues in the region. If the U.S. removes itself from the Sahel, the security of our European allies will be compromised.

Despite the Sahel G-5’s best efforts, the region is unable to address its problems on its own. The U.S. should not continue to ignore this area and allow it to become a center of suffering and extremism. This comes at a time when the current administration is seeking to lessen its presence abroad in favor of a more domestic focus. Stationing forces to contain and eventually eliminate extremist groups in the area will ultimately directly help ensure better security for the U.S. and her allies. Moreover, development aid, especially for irrigation and new farming techniques, should be committed to ensure those of the Sahel do not need to turn to extremism for livelihood or security. Staying in the Sahel prevents disaster. Failing to understand this will be catastrophic for the region, and we will not be shielded from the consequences.

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